I kind of joked around, or at least posed a provocative question last June when I asked if the Raptors title deserved an asterisk attached to it.
The reason was obvious: the Warriors were decimated with injuries and a shell of the team many expected to secure its third-straight title when the playoffs began. But in the end, after polling a few former players, and giving it some serious thought, I ended the piece concluding it was unnecessarily petty to not give Toronto its flowers. Sure, Kevin Durant played all of 12 minutes in the Finals, Steph Curry was clearly running on fumes, and Klay Thompson tore his ACL in the clincher. But injuries are part of the game and it was the Raptors who were the first team to 16 wins in the playoffs. That’s all that really matters in the end.
I’ll always argue championships deserve context and the details—often ignored in our modern society where attention spans last about 10 seconds—are important, not eye-roll inducing. Yes, the Warriors kicked off their dynasty run in 2015, but if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love aren't hurt it easily could've been a different story. Sure, the Cavaliers won the 2016 Finals in historic fashion, erasing a 3-1 deficit, but chances are Golden State earns another ring if Draymond Green didn't smack LeBron James in the family jewels in Game 4.
Bring that up with a Cleveland fan and they’ll tell you “tough shit” or “oh well” or something else dismissive. And you get why. Results speak for themselves and sometimes there are weird circumstances on the path to a championship. That’s almost assuredly going to be the case for the next NBA champion and I’d like to do my part to dead the idea that the winner of the 2020 NBA Finals deserves as asterisk well before the league (hopefully) reconvenes in Orlando next month.
Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. Maybe I’m making something completely out of nothing. The whole asterisk on the 2019-20 NBA champion argument doesn’t appear to be that popular. But it’s a theory or thought starter that’s floated around the interwebs.
We all know things are going to look, sound, feel, and unwind differently than normal. But that shouldn’t take any shine away from the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, or a surprise team winning it all under the most unique of circumstances.
The reasons for that are many. Twenty-two teams—not all 30—have been invited down to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in central Florida to play. Every team will play eight games to finish out the regular-season after four months away from the grind of NBA basketball. There will be daily coronavirus testing, confined living quarters, extended time away from family and friends, and no discernable crowds to give teams any kind of home-court advantage. Meanwhile, squads that were dealing with health issues (like the Sixers and Ben Simmons and the Blazers and their big men) have had a chance to heal up. Some stars, like James Harden and Nikola Jokic, used the time off to get into the best shape of their lives.
On the other end of the spectrum, teams like the Jazz and Spurs announced key players (Bojan Bogdanović and LaMarcus Aldridge) are done for the season after undergoing surgery during lockdown. Yes, a surprising amount of NBA players spent weeks, if not months unable to get up shots while quarantined. The quality of basketball could initially suffer because of that. True, the playoffs might feature a potential new wrinkle with play-in games between the 8th and 9th seeds allowing a team to sneak in that otherwise wouldn’t normally. And if a boatload of prominent players balk at venturing down to Orlando, like Kyrie Irving suggested last week, or teams get decimated by the virus, then I'll revisit my stance.
But for all that’s unique about the completion of the season, here’s what's staying the same: the best basketball players in the world will ball with urgency and animosity for the chance to earn immortality when the playoffs arrive. First squad to win 16 games gets to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Momentum entering the playoffs won't be a thing. Neutral courts should negate friendly/fugazi whistles that studies have shown always favor the home team. Hopefully, everyone down in Orlando stays safe and coronavirus-free from July to October. Mentally and emotionally, players will be tested like never before. We all know things are going to look, sound, feel, and unwind differently than normal. None of it should take any shine away from the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, or a surprise team winning it all under the most unique of circumstances.
The 2019-20 NBA season will require context. The details of how it was interrupted and completed will matter when we take the long view. The challenges the champion will endure will likely be unprecedented. And that’s why the craziness COVID-19 wrecked upon the league should only add to the reverence we have for whoever wins it all.
No asterisk. Just adulation.